The PDAF scam and the 2016 election

Will the ongoing investigation of the large-scale diversion of lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to private pockets have any significant effect on the 2016 elections and on Philippine politics in general? This is a complex question.

The answer, I think, greatly depends on the level of importance Filipino voters assign to the personal integrity of elected officials as against the myriad forms of assistance they expect to derive from them. In general, I think the connection between integrity in public service and persistent mass poverty is still largely viewed as something abstract. Therefore, a lot depends on how effectively the anticorruption movement, which is basically a middle-class constituency, can shape the electoral debate.

The Supreme Court decision abolishing the pork barrel system is an incredible achievement. It lays the foundation for all future reform efforts in governance. But, a discreet return to the old ways is not improbable. The high court prohibits lawmakers from inserting in the national budget lump-sum allocations for projects to be determined by them, and from playing any role in project implementation and budget disbursement after Congress has passed the budget. Nothing in this ruling prevents the executive branch from accommodating specific requests from favored legislators. Indeed, nothing prevents lawmakers from using their influence and connections in various government departments to secure funds for their pet projects. If anything, the PDAF ruling tilts the balance in favor of the executive, and makes lawmakers more dependent than ever on the president’s discretionary powers.

Clearly, while the abolition of the pork barrel has derailed an entrenched system of generating slush funds for electoral campaigns and everyday patronage, it does not kill patronage politics itself. What we can be certain of at this point is that the proper and responsible use of public funds will henceforth depend heavily on the commitment to systemic reform of whoever sits in Malacañang.

Things would be immensely better if we had an independent judiciary and mature political parties to check the abuses of those who wield political power. But these modern institutions are evolutionary achievements. They grow out of everyday practice. While it is gratifying to see that the checks and balances in our system of government appear to be working, we need to get used to a way of doing things that nurtures and strengthens these institutions.

Now that we are seeing the full measure of the thievery that took place during the Arroyo presidency, we can only be grateful for the blessings that come with having an honest president. This, however, need not be entirely a matter of luck. By choosing well in 2016, we can make honest and dedicated public service the new norm, and avoid repeating the excesses of that plunderous decade when an unelected president seized power and used every dirty trick in the book to preserve it.

Personal integrity is not the easiest thing in the world to measure, and looking for virtuous men and women in politics could be a futile exercise. But there are things we can reasonably demand of our political leaders. First, that they must take their responsibilities seriously. We should not waste our votes on people who, after being accused of cheating, lying, and stealing or misusing public funds, do not bother to offer a persuasive account of their innocence. Today the burden falls most heavily on those whose names have been mentioned in sworn and signed statements as having received kickbacks or commissions from their PDAF. Even if no cases have been filed against them, it is their duty to render a complete and verifiable report showing how and where they used their PDAF.

Second, we need to expand the meaning of personal integrity to include two qualities of leadership most needed by our society at this time—selflessness and discernment. The constitutional provision banning political dynasties and mandating the democratization of opportunities for public service is very clear. Any elected public official who ignores it, on the pretext that this constitutional mandate still awaits legislative enactment, can be accused of bad faith. We cannot go wrong if we choose those who have not built or shown any intent to build political empires for their kin.

Similarly, I take personal integrity to mean the capacity to draw a sharp line separating one’s functions as a public official from one’s obligations to the business groups that financed one’s political career. The failure to differentiate has been one of the biggest obstacles to our evolution into a modern society. It has stunted our economy, and has kept our political class small and exclusive. More important, this lack of discernment has lain at the center of nearly every instance of corruption in our national life.

Instead of withering away like atavistic survivals of a bygone era, political families have multiplied and become more shameless in their pursuit of power and wealth. Their persistence mirrors the paucity of statesmen who can think and live selflessly for country—individuals who think of politics as a vocation, not to make money or gain a name or protect their family’s fortunes, but to pursue a vision for a hopeful nation. I’m aware that these words are so loosely spoken in the campaign trail that hearing them only elicits cynicism.

But, we need to recover the power of words in political discourse by daring our politicians to look us straight in the eye when they speak, to say what they mean and to mean what they say.